Welcome back, Tomeful Tuesday!
When it comes to the companies we like and the designers we like, we don't always look forward to upcoming projects with the same level of excitement. That's fine: we all prefer differ things and we are all looking for different things at different times. If one is not in the market for a new way to open wine bottles, for example, the best wine bottle opener of all time is likely to garner little attention.
Such is how I found myself in regards to this Clockwork Gnome offering, when I heard that fellow rambler and guest blogger Paris Crenshaw was working on The Rogues Gallery: The Cloven Hoof Syndicate. I expected good work and something useful, but it just didn't hit my future salivation button at the time.
And then, I saw it.
Publisher Taliesin and his workship of gnomes just keep improving their craft. The Cloven Hoof Syndicate's layout and design is clear and gives the right moody look for the dark content. The choice of illustrations is strong overall, with two minor complaints (see end of review). But while the Cogs from gnomeland are getting shiner and prettier, the real blow that split my adrenal gland asunder came from the functional content.
Designer Crenshaw has provided a uniquely flavored, fully realized thieves guild. While it is set in CGP's Eorthe in the city of Aerendal, it is easily adapted for use in other worlds. It brings together alchemy, faerie, and daemons to create a criminal underground stocked with villains dangling plot hooks left, right, and center. These characters fit within the goals and activities of the syndicate (again, more plot hooks and possible plot elements), and draw on the full range of options available at this point from the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. For those of us who are still digesting the Core Rulebook and have little time for putting together new options from Advanced and Ultimate books in the PFRPG, here are key members who are coherent that will stand out as memorable and challenging due to these options in their builds.
I will not give examples due to spoiler issues, but trust me: these are far from shallow or run-of-th-mill characters. They are colorful and complex; the result of lots of creativity and time investement. When your time is saved and you've been given better material than you would have created even with time, that's a very good thing. (Ain't nobody happy if GM ain't happy.) Below the key members, the supporting cast of NPC rogues would take a lot less work for the GM to build, but Paris provides appropriate sample NPCs to fill out the rest of the syndicate's roles. Just the right level of guidance for further customization as needed that fits the organization as conceived.
In addition to taking care of time-consuming major NPCs, TRG:TCHS provides some interesting new items that fit fantasy organized crime. But more importantly, the ebook provides a strong sense of place for the syndicate's base and the players' adventuring. What's more important to the fantasy thieves guild than the guild hall? Here the chief clockwork gnome himself adds the maps that aid the imagination with crisp representations to guide the GM in manifesting the location in game. And for those of you who remember the publisher's strong interest in the mythic underworld, you won't be surprised to discover that the tunnels below lead into an entire network, fanning out to the scenes of the syndicate's business interests. A sidebar makes clear that the mundane underworld is deep and extensive enough to allow contacts with the mythic underworld.
I have one criticism of note to make of The Cloven Hoof Syndicate, and it centers on the toughest area for a small third party publisher to deal with: art. Take the criticism within the scope of what I have said about the ongoing improvement in appearance that Clockwork Gnome's products have been evincing, which I believe has reached a new high mark with this product. Original art commissions are the most expensive part of publishing. In responding to my questions about CGP's products, I was surprised to learn that TCHS depends completely on stock art for illustrations (not including maps, of course). Allen is accomplishing a lot with stock art. There were two pieces that didn't work as well for me, though. The illustration on page 21 doesn't really communicate fiendish half-orc to me. Perhaps creative needs and art resources are just too difficult to match here? The derro illustration on page 25 looks strange in perspective and proportion. More importantly, it does not particularly say "alchemist" to me. However, these two examples point out the overall success of the art in the work. As the publisher continues to wrestle with how to get the most out of his art budget, perhaps budding fantasy artists will note the quality of his products and be willing to come to mutually benefiting arrangements for some of these more difficult instances. Take a look, artists looking for a start. This is the kind of quality material you'd like to be able to show you had a part in as you try to grow your business.
On the persnickety side, there is a text/illustration crowding issue on page 11.
Even if I allow these two issues to lower the appearance from an A- to a B+, the content gets a solid A+. Pathfinder players should avail themselves of this imaginatively conceived and finely carried-out thieves guild. Labyrinth Lord players can look forward to the release of its upcoming LL version.
Finally, a musical dedication to hark back to my entry point. Good game writing and design has the ability to fan the flames of imaginative desires where previously they burned low, and for me this is a testimony to The Cloven Hoof as an accomplishment. I'll be on the look out for the occasion to use this to improve my game.